The challenge of scaling up the smart meter roll-out is shared across gas, water and electricity companies. As the panel debate and workshop at the Utility Week Live Summit discussed, smart meters prepare consumers for the changes to come on the net zero journey. But is there are also a case for using the energy sector's new dual band communications network for smart water meters too? Read on to hear more about delegates' views.

Smart metering is part of the strategy to decarbonise Great Britain. As well as prompting consumers to adopt energy- and water-efficient behaviour, it’s building a physical infrastructure  and reservoir of customer data to support the next phase of the net zero challenge – driving and charging EVs, storing and generating energy, and participating in “edge of grid” demand side response.

But, as the Utility Week Live Summit session on Delivering the smart meter rollout discussed, the challenges are considerable. Delegates heard from the Capita-owned Data Communications Company (DCC), which has reinvigorated the smart meter roll-out and migration from SMETS 1 technology on behalf of DNO and energy suppliers, but also about the residue of “hard to reach” and unengaged consumers.

And even when consumers do accept an invitation to install a smart meter, some of them – perhaps viewing energy providers as belonging on the other side of a “them” and “us” divide – will tick the data “opt out” box. “As it stands, customers can opt out of having the smart meter, or opt out of providing interested parties with half hourly data from their homes – some customers do see these elements are invasive,” commented Rupal Patel, head of supply energy consulting at Capita.

Panelists agreed that sharing and exploiting smart meter data will be a foundation for future energy products and services, but raised a question mark over whether half hourly data is detailed enough to build an accurate picture of demand and loading on a more congested low voltage network.

In the workshop accompanying the session, a different theme emerged. With the water sector’s meter installation programme progressing more slowly than that of the energy utilities, participants saw an opportunity to accelerate by linking water meters into the same IoT network and communication protocols that gas and electricity suppliers are using.

As well as offering advantages in installation, cross-utility data sharing and data security, triangulating between utilities would fundamentally make sense from a consumer point of view.

“If consumers could see the three main utilities on one device, I think that would be really useful,” said Damian Crawford, head of smart networks and leakage at engineering consultancy Stantec, which advises over 15 water companies in the UK.

Taking the first steps
Smart meters are widely seen as “preparing the ground” and building acceptance for later rounds of energy transformation  net zero behaviour change. Whether the next step is storage heaters, EVs and charging points, battery storage or vehicle to grid, smart meters prepare the way.

Capita’s Rupal Patel took up the theme in the panel debate: “Smart meters are the first government-mandated step towards meeting net carbon zero targets, and key to ensuring that the customer can engage with and follow all the other changes yet to come. Smart meters, and the data they provide, are just the first of many products, services and changes our customers will see in their life and homes in the coming few decades.”

Making an appointment for installation could start a conversation between consumer and supplier that extends over many years, as Joe Mills, head of smart metering at Ovo Energy, also emphasised.

“We’ve really got an opportunity to promote a product which will unlock countless benefits. [We have] an hour to an hour and a half to start to educate them and understand how to support them on the journey to plan zero,” Mills said. “This is a really exciting time to engage with customers; we need customers to be excited as we are about the potential opportunities that we can unlock, just by taking that first step in getting the smart meter.”

Are you engaged?
But customer engagement is often lacking, and a recurring theme in the debate was how to communicate with hard-to-reach customers. At EDF, Els van der Vijver, manager of planning for its smart meter programme, said: “We see [customer engagement] as one of our biggest concerns, when we move to the tail end of the rollout. Virtually all of our customers already eligible to have a smart meter have been offered one. Getting customers who have  ignored or not accepted the offer to accept one will be a big challenge.”

Similar concerns are widespread across the sector.  In the workshop, Ovo Energy’s Joe Mills, head of smart metering, voiced a similar concern. “There’s a lot of apathy in the energy sector. A third of customers, for example, in the UK haven’t ever switched suppliers, and they can generally do that for a savings of around £250 a year.”

The key, Patel believes, is communicating that customers an idea of how the net zero agenda will change their daily habits and their household micro-economy, as each consumer will perceive them differently. For some, the opportunity to cut bills by accessing preferential tariffs will take precedence, for others, the driver could be tapping into community generated energy.

“Often, customers don’t actually understand what’s in it for me, what does that mean? What are the products and services that this may enable, and how does this mean I can contribute personally in terms of impact on the environment?” she asks. “These things aren’t necessarily shared with the customer, or provided at the right level so that customers can actively participate in the conversation, even down to the language used to communicate basic information about smart meters.”

But how should water companies best communicate with reluctant customers? One workshop participant suggested that reverting to paper and postal communications helped to neutralise some customers’ tech-based anxieties.

At engineering contractor Stantec, Crawford suggested that the language used to describe the devices and their purpose is key and should be calibrated to particular communities.

“For one company, we made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘smart’, because the perception was their customers didn’t appreciate it, but a ‘digital meter’ went down really well. And another company’s customers didn’t like ‘smart’ or ‘digital’ or even the word ‘meter’. So there, we said it was being used as a sensor or leak device. Again, they were quite happy with that.”

Talking your language
Precisely because there is a deficit in consumer understanding of the technology – around different tariffs, or maximising green electricity – Patel argues that companies engaged in the smart meter roll out will need to invest in call centres, online chat facilities and other communication tools to building a “net zero ready” consumer population.

At Capita, Patel warned that customer engagement in the smart meter roll-out isn’t a given; for many, previously promised savings have not materialised, while the pursuit of ‘net zero’ is either not understood or such a general concept that’s difficult to relate to their particular circumstances.

A recent survey she described illustrated the problem: while the Covid era and general awareness of the forthcoming Cop 26 conference has built better awareness of Net zero, there was little of substance underneath when the survey results were analysed.

“Over 2020, awareness of what net zero is has increased by 46 per cent, which is great. But when you ask them how much do you actually know, still 47 per cent said  ‘Actually, I don’t know that much’, all the way through to ‘Actually, I don’t know anything’. There isn’t quite the level we need to drive this home, so education is key to them being part of the conversation. For instance, about how smart meters give access to time of use tariffs.”

But other also discussed a disconnect between the renewable energy agenda and customers’ lived experience. As Manx Utilities on the Isle of Man, where the smart meter roll-out is just beginning, stakeholder engagement manager Sarah Jarvis felt that talk of “joined up” response lack substance.

“Customers talk, as everybody does, about climate change, but I can’t see anything happening. From the shores of the Isle of Man, as I look towards Cumbria, there’s a huge wind farm there, but we haven’t got any access to it.”

To deal with hesitance around “data sharing”, Patel recommends emphasising that it isn’t about divulging personal information to a profit-sucking private enterprise, but another aspect of the “sharing economy”. In other words, pooling data can boost market transparency or demonstrate a demand for a new service that helps to make it viable.

“With education and understanding will come the willingness to participate and share data on a more granular level,” she warned. “But if we explain that giving us that half hourly information could mean getting to use energy for free [when there are high levels of renewables on the network]…. Being transparent on what the information could be used for will also be key.”

Ovo is also experimenting with a  project that could make “smart” meters even smarter, by fitting them sensors that allow them to transmit data  about the home environment to the energy provider. Data from an energy efficient home, for example, might demonstrate that it could be a good candidate for switching to low carbon air source heat pumps. “We are working closely with Chameleon Technology and Salford University, to look at how we can implement sensor information or elicit sensor information from the in-home display,” said Mills.

From the Data Communications Company
DCC, the Capita-owned business that secured a licence to build a smart meter network from BEIS and Ofgem, is migrating millions of not-so-smart SMETS 1 meters and installing new dual band communication hubs to create a new network ecosystem that can be used by its 200 customers, which include National Grid, electricity DNOs, gas distribution companies and energy suppliers.

DCC’s innovation director, Chris Barlow explained that the resulting network could play a key underpinning role in ‘net zero’. “We’re going to hit 53 million smart meters and over 30 million homes and businesses when we get to scale, and our reach will cover 99.3% of Great Britain. For security, we believe it is extremely robust and capable of making sure that no one can see your information.”

Barlow predicts that the ready-made network integrating millions of properties, including blocks that previously had limited coverage, could be utilised by others in the future, suggesting that household names such as Amazon, Apple or Samsung would be developing services linked to home energy, home charging or home heating.

“This network of smart devices … gives us a great platform for innovation. We won’t be the people developing new products and services, that’s not what we’re interested in. But having that platform enables our customers to use and gain value from it, and bringing in new customers can help us reduce the cost of running the network and reduce costs all across the board,” says Barlow.

Barlow also argued that the DCC network could support interoperability in the EV charger sector, while the ability to control the loading on a device could also suit applications that involve storing and re-exporting energy to the grid, allowing energy aggregators to “package” up groups or categories of properties in order to offer a service to the DNO/DSOs.

“We want to make sure we’ve got a platform that’s capable of supporting new functionalities, such as EVs or anything that requires load control. We’re providing data API’s which allow [service providers] to use their current open messaging standards … to interact with those load control devices, and secure that information in an easy manner,” he explained.

Joined-up networks
But could the DCC-built network also connect up the water sector’s smart meters? This possibility became a key theme of the workshop session following the panel debate.

At the moment, water companies are adopting a range of comms protocols for their smart meter installations, with no guarantee that they will be able to talk to each other, never mind their co-utilities. And signal strength has been a problem – if the water meter is located in the street, the signal needs to reach inside the home.

Another key issue holding back the programme is cost. Stantec’s Damian Crawford points out, the water sector is struggling to scale up implementation and keep data flowing, given the cost of installing meters and boundary boxes while maintaining spending on other regulatory priorities.

“The cost of having a smart water meter, with 10 years of data coming in, is anything  between £75 and £100 pounds. It’s such a large cost. Obviously the regulator has to approve it, which a lot of companies are struggling to justify, if you’re not in a water conservation area. And what you pay for a smart meter eventually gets passed on to the customers, which affects their engagement as well.”

As Ovo’s Joe Mills says, the Home Area Network created by DCC is building a resource that should be available for third party providers – including water companies – to exploit. “There’s definitely a capability that already exists within the DCC network to add additional meters and sensors and smart appliances on it. That’s how it was designed.”

“There’s no ‘common utilities forum’ that can push this together, or is it Ofgem and Ofwat going off in different directions? It’s worth a debate. But [the DCC network] has definitely got the capability within energy to bring water in, so it should probably be something that’s explored across the industry.”

Dawood Ghalaeiny, chief executive of IoT connectivity specialist ZARIOT, urged a ‘cookie cutter’ approach across different utilities and even across different countries – perhaps backed by a regulatory mandate – to help achieve economies of scale and bring costs down.

“It could be the utilities regulator that imposes, ‘This is going to be the standard way of rolling it out’, because [creating a smart meter network] has overall environmental impact, and lowers the infrastructure costs to the country.”

Stantec’s Crawford agrees that the way forward would be for Ofgem and Ofwat to establish a common agenda, allowing the providers to come together. “As mentioned, by Joe, the regulators have to come together and agree a way forward. I think Ofgem and Ofwat basically have not spoken to each other about it.”

Later, he added: “It’s almost as if you need to combine all the regulators and just have one ‘environmental regulator’ that covers Ofgem and Ofwat. So you know who to speak to, and there’s one clear line of sight strategy going forward.”

Mumin Islam, speaking in his role as water resources planning manager at Affinity Water (but now head of PR24 at South Staffs and Cambridge Water), also emphasised the need to loop in and gain support from the regulators.

He referred to the example of an initiative to tackle water efficiency in the non-household sector, which had brought together regulators, DEFRA, and other stakeholders to produce a joint action plan. “You need people speaking to each other in one room under a common goal to go forward. It makes total sense to bring it all together.”

One option – suggested by Crawford – might be to run a trial on a new development, but the Isle of Man could also be a test bed for linking water meters into the same network as electricity and gas. The island had no SMETs 1 meters, and is starting anew with a comms network by Trilliant.

“With the technology that we’re putting in, we are hopeful that at some point, we’ll be able to bring in water, which is also part of Manx Utilities. I hope we’ll be able to harmonise,” says Jarvis.

Final thoughts
Throughout the panel debate and workshop, the smart meter roll-out was seen as an underpinning technology for net zero, while the DCC’s rapidly expanding network is viewed an important step in the right direction. But, as participants identified, there is still a significant communications challenge with hard-to-reach households, and a dearth of understanding of what net zero really means. Meanwhile, Ofwat and Ofgem appear to have their own communication difficulties.

But as Jarvis also commented, conversations such as that facilitated by the workshop certainly help. “Just to know that I’m not alone in some of these struggles is actually quite interesting!  It’s knowing that there are people out there you can get in touch with, and who are on the same road.”

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